Stacking mountains of canned goods might be considered more of a backbreaking activity than a life-changing one. I was not looking for “life-changing” when I volunteered at my parish food pantry in Chicago. I had prayed that getting lost in the canned goods would provide some distraction while I figured out my career path.
I signed on for a four-hour volunteer commitment each week. The first day I arrived at the pantry, I was not sure what to expect. Volunteering in a food pantry or a homeless shelter is not an activity I did with my youth group or even as an undergrad in college. Social justice work was what other people did while I was busy pursuing a career in journalism. Through all of my 20s, I was chasing newspaper stories or wondering how I might get to a larger newspaper.
At this point in my life, I was trying not to freak out about a recent career move, which led to the first adult crisis of my 30s. After spending more than a year in campus ministry, I knew enough to realize that I wanted to be involved in a different field of ministry. It was a transition I had not expected to make, as I thought that campus ministry was where I was called to serve. I began to question what else I might do with my life. I thought that if I spent one day a week volunteering, I might figure out my entire adult life, or, at the very least, draw a path to something new.
Because the task of sorting cans of corn and boxes of macaroni and cheese did not require much thought, I found myself observing the people who came through the pantry. I overheard one young couple respond ecstatically when they received a bag of groceries. I watched senior citizens push their heavy carts away from the building and toward the bus stop. I listened to the volunteers around me. I stopped worrying about my career and just sorted food.
As the disorganized clutter of canned fruits and vegetables was transformed into neat stacks, I began to feel a sense of accomplishment. I witnessed in myself a renewed sense of purpose. Having a place to go where I knew that even my small actions would make a great difference in someone’s life was gratifying.
It was an opportunity to live beyond myself and to care for others’ needs. Over a few weeks, I moved up in the volunteer chain, from putting items away to interacting with the food pantry’s clients when assigned to “window duty.” I began to realize how each of us was helping to contribute to a client’s well-being. Each member of the team had an important role to play, from greeting guests to helping them fill out paperwork, and then, most importantly, to serving them with the dignity and respect they deserved. The morning I was assigned to window duty was the morning all the puzzle pieces began to fit together. Now, I could finally see where all my work was going.
It was going into the bags, then into people’s hands, and then out the door. My shift in thinking began when I could talk with the clients and form relationships. A few of them chatted about the weather or what was going on in their week. Several commented on how grateful they were for the work of the food pantry and volunteers, as it would help them feed their family this week.
I remember doing a double take while standing at the window, thinking, “I am making a difference today.”
The time I spent volunteering provided clarity for me. There were realizations I made during those weeks that would later shape what I was looking for in my ministry career. I knew that I wanted to work in a ministry that allowed me to use my writing and pastoral skills at the same time. Because stacking and organizing canned goods was a tangible project, I knew that when I walked out of the pantry, I had moved things. That translated into being able to juggle projects and incorporate writing and editing in whatever my next job would be.
The biggest thing I took away from my volunteer experience was the realization that I wanted to be in an environment that allowed me to be more hands-on. I needed to be in a place where forming and creating relationships was a cornerstone of my work. I also found that it was helpful for me to see the beginning and ending of projects. The pantry allowed me to see clients who were in need of food when they walked into the building, and when I said goodbye to them, they would have groceries in hand and, sometimes, a smile on their face. The whole volunteer experience helped to give me a better idea of who I could become.
(Originally published July 2014)
Do you suddenly have the urge to volunteer at a local food pantry? Go to FoodPantry.org or Feeding America to find one near you. And don’t forget to find our more about food pantries and other volunteer opportunities at your local parish.